At the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., the ghosts of Louisiana black soldiers adorn the walls.
Louisiana was the first state to induct “colored” soldiers, with two regiments that evolved out of New Orleans. Thomas Overton Moore, then Louisiana’s governor, called 1,100 of the soldiers on May 6, 1861, into the Confederate ranks to help fortify New Orleans.
The 1st and 2nd regiments initially created by Moore for the Confederacy, were dubbed the Louisiana Native Guards. But the crews eventually defected to the Union with the takeover of the city.
By the end of the war, 25,000 soldiers from the state were enlisted, making it the largest with a contribution among the 200,000 men that fought nationwide for the Union. Of the 149 black officers, 77 came from Louisiana.
Though black soldiers were shunned by Union commanders, the troops proved their worth in the battle against the Confederates on May 27, 1863, with the assault at Port Hudson.
The mettle of the troops captured the attention of U.S. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who wrote back to Union commanders unwilling to enlist blacks about his new secret weapon.
“Better soldiers never shouldered a musket,” Butler wrote.
The museum held a grand opening earlier in the month, celebrating its move from a smaller facility into modern $5 million institution. As part of the event, museum officials honored Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, with the Robert Smalls Award.
Smalls was a legendary black soldier who commandeered a Confederate ship for the Union, sneaking it past enemy strongholds.
Hari Jones, assistant director and curator of the museum, credited Landrieu for helping to keep the story of the black soldiers of the war alive.
“She’s been one of the best friends in Congress for the whole Civil War community,” Jones said. “She makes sure that not just Civil War stories are told but that it is inclusive.”
Landrieu introduced legislation earlier in the year that would have created a commission to commemorate this year’s 150th anniversary of the war.
“I think remembering history and honoring those that laid down their lives for freedom and opportunity is something that we should continually and consistently do,” Landrieu said. “I think as we celebrate the 150th year of the Civil War that we not overlook the quote ?colored’ soldiers.”
One of the true treasures of the museum is Jones, who knows a little bit about being a soldier. Jones served in the Marine Corps for 21 years, and spent six years after his discharge to research the history of African-American Civil War soldiers.
He joined the museum in 2003 and is passionate about his duty.
“I love this story,” Jones said. “It’s one of the most-exciting stories of the Civil War. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in American history.”
Jones started a Saturday session in which descendents of Civil War soldiers, including those visiting from Louisiana, come and speak. And the free museum operates solely by word of mouth.
“I get people from Louisiana who say, ?my neighbor came here’ and ?my cousin came here,’” Jones said.
Visitors can use a touch screen to locate the regiments, including five from the Baton Rouge area. The museum has become a research tool for those wanting to trace their descendants of the war
Those wanting to learn more about the museum can visit its website at http://www.afroamcivilwar.org. Jones is emphatic about keeping the Louisiana story at the forefront of his work.
“You can’t help it,” Jones said. “They’re just so important.”
The Louisiana Brigade eventually marched on Mobile and Montgomery in Alabama and secured western Florida, Jones said.
“They’re definitely involved and very important to their region of the country,” Jones said. “And their voices and muskets were heard.”
Gerry Shields is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is GerardShields@aol.com.